Burning holes in the state's indoor-smoking ban

Lawmakers are considering a special exemption for cigar lounges, eyeing potential revenue but turning a blind eye to the health effects of the legislation.

Lawmakers are considering a special exemption for cigar lounges, eyeing potential revenue but turning a blind eye to the health effects of the legislation.

Wing chairs, tobacco smoke, rose-colored prints of…fox hunts. Throw in a whiskey sour (or two, or three) and you have the "Mad Men" meme, fully expressed in a bill wending its way through the Washington legislature.

Senate bill 5542 would crack open Washington's smoking ban and permit special licenses for cigar lounges and retail tobacconist shops. It appears, at least on the surface, to be a trivial tweak of Initiative 901, the 2005 clean-indoor-air law that passed in every county in Washington. Northwesterners are free agents, mind you. If we walk into a cigar bar we should (gasp) presuppose that we'll get blasted by cigar smoke.

On May 17, the cigar bill passed the Senate, albeit barely, with bipartisan support. It's strange bedfellows at work: Democrats who want to bolster their small-business cred in common cause with conservatives who savor challenging a tribal monopoly on all things tobacco. In the midst of a recession, what could be more symbolically rich than politicians laboring to bring back the smoke-filled room?

At a March 16 Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing, the otherwise sensible Jeanne Kohl-Welles insensibly said, "I read novels sometimes and they take place in the 1800s, and there's mention of cigar lounges." Point taken. Chances are those same novels also mention child labor, female disenfranchisement, and slavery. Not all that's past was, well, good.

Moreover, the debate plays tobacco semantics. Supporters emphasize that they're all about the celebratory, all-American cigar and not the hangdog, blue-color/ale-esque cigarette. It's as if SB 5542 is the tobacco version of a Jay McInerney novel: This isn't crack, it's high-end, powder cocaine.

In an email, Erin Dziedzic, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, wrote, "Activists for so-called 'smoker's rights' say this is just a small exception for a few locations, but it would allow almost as many locations for cigar smoking (600) as there are Starbucks locations in Washington (674)!"

As with Initiative 901, the core question is not personal liberty, but public health and worker safety. Second-hand smoke, even the sweet aroma of an Arturo Fuente, is still a Class A carcinogen. Working-class employees should not be compelled to choose between a living wage and inhaling disease-, heart-attack- and impotence-inducing crud. Lawmakers, anticipating that objection, insist that workers sign a waiver. Hmmm. Curious to see how that would work. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, 5542's chief sponsor in the state House (and, full disclosure, an old friend) wrote in an email:

Facing a $5.1 billion revenue shortfall in Olympia, I sponsored the cigar bill as a tongue-in-cheek 'creative financing' measure to raise the $3 million to pay for Passport to College — a fantastically successful scholarship that sends hundreds of foster youth to college every year. At the same time, I happen to believe the bill is a tiny spark of old fashioned American protest against nanny-state regulation and for individual rights and freedom of association. As the husband of a physician, I realize there are profoundly important health concerns to smoking in general, but this is a narrow exception and includes extensive protections for employees.

Okay, fine. My hope is that after the end of the special session on Wednesday (May 25), Reuven and I can share a couple Cohibas and analyze the reasons why SB 5542 got smoked.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson